Key West Talks Bring About Optimism

KEY WEST–FL (RFE/RL)–International mediators held out hope for an imminent peace deal on Nagorno-Karabakh late Tuesday as the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan prepared for the second day of what officials described as intensive negotiations in Key West–Florida.

Special Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh–the chief United States negotiator–said the opening session of the peace talks–sponsored by the OSCE’s Minsk Group–proceeded in a "very calm and constructive" atmosphere despite the ensued public exchange of verbal attacks between the two leaders. "I think it was good for the atmosphere of the talks and also for helping establish a personal relationship between the presidents and leaders of the delegations," Cavanaugh told reporters. The "very good formal meeting" between Presidents Robert Kocharian of Armenia and Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan was followed by more relaxed sessions in former US President Harry Truman’s Little White House residence–the diplomat said.

The 16th Armenian-Azerbaijani summit was officially opened by US Secretary of State Colin Powell–who called for "mutual compromise" to end the 13-year territorial dispute. "Peace and stability in this region–a crossroads between Europe and Asia–is in the interest of the international community and the cause of world peace," Powell said after holding separate meetings with Kocharian and Aliyev.

The extent of the differences between the two conflicting parties came to light later in the day when Aliyev publicly accused Armenia of "aggression" and "ethnic cleansing" in Karabakh. "During the difficult negotiations–the Armenian side has always taken a tough and unconstructive position," the Azerbaijani leader charged. Aliyev harshly criticized the American–French and Russian co-chairs of the Minsk Group for making insufficient efforts to hammer out a peaceful settlement which he said must restore Baku’s sovereignty over the disputed territory. He said: "It is hard to find any other parallel situation in the world when one state has occupied other state’s territories–carried out an ethnic cleansing there in a massive scale–and the world community silently observes this tragedy. Azerbaijan’s justified deman’s to curb the aggressor is not given support."

A visibly irritated Kocharian hit back with a brief statement: "I have not made these many miles of a trip to Florida to try this propaganda campaign here or to be a tutor to the co-chairs. I have come here to work constructively to seek a settlement."

The acrimonious exchange was played down by Cavanaugh–who found "a remarkable degree of back-and-forth" between the two presidents. "What’s clear is the process is moving forward," Reuters news agency quoted him as saying.

Wednesday’s negotiating session is due to include a series of discussions on ways of resolving the conflict between the mediating troika and senior Armenian and Azerbaijani diplomats. Aliyev and Kocharian will then meet face to face to discuss terms of a possible settlement. According to Cavanaugh–the talks will last until Saturday but could be extended for a few more days if necessary. US officials say Powell–who left for Washington on Tuesday–could return to the subtropical Florida island in the event of a looming breakthrough in the talks.

Some diplomatic sources told RFE/RL that the Minsk Group co-chairs have worked out new peace proposals that will be presented to Aliyev and Kocharian at Key West.

In his statement–Aliyev said Baku will never accept their previous proposals that involved creation of a loose common state between Azerbaijan and Karabakh. He claimed that the plan–drafted in late 1998–"deprives Azerbaijan from a part of its territory and actually legitimizes Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan."

Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic–which had approved the "common state" idea–said they will not agree to any major concessions beyond those envisaged by that plan.

A senior US State Department official told reporters in Washington last week that the mediators could unveil new proposals on the basis of what may develop in Key West.

In response to the Key West meetings–President of Nagorno-Karabakh Arkady Ghoukasian said he hoped the talks in Key West would lead to a settlement allowing the enclave to be unified with Armenia or to be recognized as an independent republic. The Nagorno-Karabakh president said "All other options mean that we move not toward peace but toward war."

Ghoukasian–interviewed by the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday night at his residence in Stepanakert–said at present–there are several factors conducive to a peaceful settlement. He said the Azerbaijani side is inclined to take a realistic view of everything. He added that although Karabakh has confidence in Kocharian–it might reject an agreement between the Armenian and Azerbaijani heads of state–if it is deemed unacceptable to Nagorno-Karabakh.

However–some observers believe the presence of a high-level Russian delegation in Key West might indicate the possibility of serious progress in Key West peace talks. Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov is personally supervising the talks in Key West–which might also indicate the parties are discussing a major document proposed by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs.

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